‘Safe to Be Me’ in the UK? It’s anything but, say LGBTQ+ protesters
Trans people and allies demonstrate at Downing Street after conference is cancelled due to boycott
“It should be safe to be me, but it is not,” said Steph Richards, a 70-year-old trans woman, at a protest by trans people and allies outside Downing Street on Wednesday.
Richards, founder of the transgender news site Steph’s Place, was one of more than a dozen speakers who addressed the crowd protesting against ongoing attacks on the LGBTQ+ community by the UK government. These attacks include its refusal to protect trans people in the proposed ban on conversion practices, its failure to reform gender recognition and trans healthcare, and the rise of hate and intolerance perpetuated by government officials and mainstream media.
“This Conservative government is indeed an all-round failure, toxic and frankly inhumane,” Steph said.
The protest was a response to the UK’s global ‘Safe to Be Me’ conference, which was set to discuss the UK’s work on LGBTQ+ rights. The event was due to be held in London between 29 June and 1 July but was cancelled after more than 100 organisations pulled out because of the government’s refusal to protect trans people in its ban on conversion practices.
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The trans community is not the only minority group that is unsafe, said Felix Fern, who organised the protest with activists from the grassroots project, Trans Activism UK. “The government has made the UK unsafe for anyone to be themselves,” he told the crowd.
Over several hours, trans campaigners and allies shared accounts of hate and systemic discrimination, and statistics affirming the shocking treatment of multiple minority groups by the UK government and British media.
They called on the government to recognise and redress all forms of discrimination, including the impact of police violence, over-policing and “undue suspicion” of Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) and neurodivergent people; and ableist assumptions by gender clinic services that neurodiverse trans people are less capable of consenting to transition-related care.
Others condemned the lack of legal protections for sex workers, who face police brutality during raids of their homes; the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BIPOC people; and the government’s refusal to protect intersex people from medically unnecessary surgeries and interventions, despite calls to do so from the UN.
Hafsa Qureshi, a queer Muslim and LGBTQ+ activist, said of the ‘Safe to Be Me’ conference; “Not even this government could lie to the masses about their token allyship, as so many organisations dropped out of their conference. We will not have our flags and our stories parroted by bigots wearing sheep’s clothing.”
The European branch of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) produces an annual ‘Rainbow Index’ comparing the state of LGBTQ+ rights in countries across Europe. Under successive Conservative governments, the UK has consistently fallen in its rankings, protesters heard. Last year, the UK had the most dramatic decrease of all countries included in the index, falling from 10th to 14th place. ILGA condemned the UK government’s failure to deliver reforms to gender recognition, and to implement a ban on conversion practices.
Last month, Downing Street confirmed that its proposed ban on so-called ‘conversion therapy’ would only apply to practices seeking to change someone’s sexual orientation, not gender identity. In addition, it will only protect under-18s, and contains loopholes for supposedly ‘consenting’ adults and for non-physical forms of conversion practices – exemptions that leave all LGBT people vulnerable.
“The holes in the ban that has been announced are so big you can fit the whole conversion therapy industry through them,” said Samantha Harris, a trans woman who spoke at the protest. “It is a ban in name only and does almost nothing to prevent these coercive and abusive practices.”
Harris set up a petition for a trans-inclusive ban that amassed more than 145,000 signatures and triggered a Westminster Hall debate that took place on 13 June. But the government maintains there are “different considerations when it comes to transgender conversion therapy” and has refused to budge despite evidence that trans people are almost twice as likely to undergo conversion practices than cis lesbian, gay and bisexual people.
Nearly four years have passed since the UK government first pledged to outlaw conversion practices. That’s “four years of the queer community continuing to be tortured and abused for who they are because our government does not have the moral decency to outright ban these practices,” Harris said. “How much more harm do we have to witness?”
Organisers called on the government to acknowledge the harm caused to queer communities by the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric pushed by its officials and by the media – which shares “harmful misinformation” against minority groups “with minimal oversight, regulation, or accountability”.
Every day, trans people are insulted by the British mainstream media, which dismisses our existence as ‘gender ideology’ and “uses minority groups as a rotating cast of villains on whom to blame society’s ills,” said Richards. “Looking at you today, all I see are real people.”
Speakers called for an outright ban on conversion practices for all LGBTQ+ people without exemptions, the full decriminalisation of sex work and the provision of transition-related healthcare via local surgeries in order to remove outdated gender clinic waiting times, which can be several years long. Others spoke about women’s right to wear religious garments, the importance of inclusive and accurate terminology in the healthcare sector (for example, including men and non-binary people in messaging around abortion and pregnacy-related services) to ensure that all people feel safe accessing care, and demanded the inclusion of critical race theory and LGBTQ+ identities in UK school curriculums.
Anti-trans ‘feminists’ often frame women’s safety and trans rights as mutually exclusive projects, necessarily at odds with one another. But one after another, speakers described the overlapping oppressions that face both cis women and trans people in the UK, and called for “necessary solidarity” between marginalised groups.
In the US, the recent overturning of Roe v Wade (a landmark Supreme Court decision that enshrined access to abortion) was a terrifying reminder that, like trans people, the bodily autonomy of cis women is also under attack.
Trans and non-binary people will never be a threat to cis women, said Natacha Kennedy, who co-founded the Feminist Gender Equality Network. “But anti-abortionists, the extreme Right and the gender-critical transphobes who support them are a threat to cis women and will always be.”
Kennedy condemned UK anti-trans ‘feminists’ who collaborate with the very conservative groups that fought to overturn Roe v Wade in the US – a decision that will cost lives, including those of cis women they claim to be protecting. “Organised transphobia in the UK has always been fascist; it’s just become more obvious recently,” she said.
Anti-abortionists, the extreme Right and the gender-critical transphobes who support them are a threat to cis women
“The struggle for choice over what happens to our bodies is something that trans people understand well,” Harris agreed. “Body autonomy affects us all. Women’s rights are trans rights, and trans rights are women’s rights.”
Amy Kavanagh, a disability rights advocate and trans ally, explained how ableist narratives are used to roll back the rights of both trans and disabled people, whose bodies are both understood by mainstream medical models as in need of ‘fixing’.
“Disabled people have their rights violated every single day – most of all by the British government,” Kavanagh said. She cited a 2016 UN inquiry that found that the UK’s violent austerity policies since 2010 had systematically violated the rights of disabled people. These policies include cuts to NHS funding and the introduction of stricter benefits requirements (such as a £2,000 cap on savings to qualify for disability support payments), making it harder for disabled people to access healthcare and financial support.
Disabled women are also twice as likely to experience sexual violence as non-disabled women, she added. Yet, as she pointed out, anti-trans ‘feminists’ who purport to advance women’s safety have been largely silent about wheelchair accessibility in women’s refuges. Instead, they use ableist arguments to suggest that disabled people are vulnerable, or cannot make informed choices about their bodies and gender identity.
Speakers consistently emphasised the shared experiences of UK minority communities: the intersecting oppressions and shared barriers that block our access to critical support and services. “Hate is not experienced in a bubble,” said Fern, one of the protest’s organisers. “Standing alongside other minority groups facing hate, harassment and legal fights is vital if we want to reduce the state of inequality in the UK.”
“We also share our defiance,” Kavanagh said. “We are here today to say that we are not broken, we are not wrong… to smash ableist transphobic narratives, to break free of the binary and challenge that boring imaginary thing called ‘normal’.”
Qureshi added: “We have not forgotten how to find joy. My call is not to continue the fight because that’s a given… I want us to be kinder to ourselves, to see how far we’ve come already and to believe that we can go further.”
A mission statement released by Trans Activism UK ahead of the demonstration outlines evidence of harm against UK minority groups, as well as demands for redress – and can be found here.
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